Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Using Alphaboxes to Elevate Student Use of Academic Vocabulary

While many might argue that standards require students to do more, to do the impossible, I have a tendency to think that standards elevate precision within the teaching and learning cycle.  To me, this is evident in the language/vocabulary that teachers use with students and with the language/vocabulary teachers must expect students to use.  Teachers are asked, with greater frequency, to facilitate the learning and use of content-rich vocabulary by students.  This expectation causes teachers to ask, "What tools and structures might a teacher use with students so they learn and use content-rich vocabulary?"  Learn AND USE!

For years, I toyed with the concept of vocabulary development.  To be honest, it was something that I could never quite figure out.  No matter what I tried, I only ended up with activities where students collected new words...and those word collections never went anywhere.  Kids didn't use them, and the opportunity to use increasingly difficult content-rich vocabulary IN CONTEXT was what I wanted. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn about Alphaboxes. Once you learn about Alphaboxes, you start to see how they can be used flexibly within the classroom.  Basically, an alphabox is a way of organizing and collecting words or vocabulary using the alphabet.  (Type alphaboxes into a Google Image search and you'll find tons of examples. I particularly love this Glogster poster.)

My feeling is that teachers might be able to use Alphaboxes as a tool with students to generate, collect, and identify content-rich vocabulary that students should be using within any particular unit of study.  When students are given the opportunity to engage in classroom discussion, talk with small groups/partners, or write about what they are learning, teachers can build the expectation that students use the vocabulary they've identified within the unit's Alphabox.  In the end, students learn AND use content-rich vocabulary in context.  My guess is that students will begin to think more carefully about the ideas they want to share because their ideas will be grounded in strong vocabulary.  With guidance, students should be able to communicate their ideas with greater precision using a vocabulary tool (created with students) to support classroom expectations that students regularly use content-rich vocabulary.

As an example, these are the steps I took to prepare an Alphabox for a 3rd grade social studies (economics) unit titled Living and Working in the City.
1. Print or make an blank Alphabox (another blank example).
2.  Use any planning tools to determine essential student vocabulary for the unit.  In this case, I wrote those words in red. (See example)
3.  Look through planning tools to determine helpful vocabulary for the unit.  In this case, I wrote those words in purple. (See example)
4.  Plan for the creation of this unit's Alphabox with students.  Prepare learning activities to introduce vocabulary to students, giving them opportunities to practice using the words in context.  Do not expect mastery at first.  Create a safe environment for students to use new vocabulary to talk about and explain what they are learning. 
5.  Add any appropriate words that students might be using throughout the unit of study.
6.  Determine how you'll assess and offer feedback to students related to their use of content-rich vocabulary.
I also love this video from the Teaching Channel about high-level conversations as part of the classroom's daily routine. 

What are your thoughts?  How do you elevate the use of content-rich vocabulary in your classroom?

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